Thursday, October 20, 2011

Okay, now you're starting to piss me off.

Scott Lobdell--who was actually responsible for 90s X-Men books that I liked (That I liked a lot)--did an interview with Newsarama recently. He had some words to say about the Starfire complains:
What surprised me was that it almost caused the Internet to melt.

 Mostly, what has surprised me has been the very vulgar way that people believe they are coming to the defense of Kori: they hurl words like "slut" and "whore" and expressions too disgusting to repeat here that are only used to demean women. 

Lets consider an imaginary woman who has more than one or two lovers. Is it fair to label her with dismissive and derogatory language? Because we disagree with the choices she makes, to do what she wants with her own body? Are we still at a place in society where we're going to call a woman — any woman — names that reinforce gender inequality?

See what he did there?

This guy made a creative work that portrayed a woman. Someone criticized their portrayal of those women, and they caught it. They turned the criticism around, changed it, and then lobbed it at the subject of their work.

Most people would call that a Strawman (or Strawfeminist) argument, but what they did here was much more specific. They positioned themselves not as the defenders of their own artistic visions, but as the True Defenders of Womanhood. In their new narrative, they are knights in shining armor defending attractive women from jealous, judgmental catty witches.

But really, they are doing exactly the opposite. They're defending themselves. They're pulling the subject of their work in between them and their critic and using them like a shield.

Now, I won't deny that there are some critics who go into slutshaming. Ridiculous judgments about real-life women who get their photos taken, who sign on for racy videos, or who dress a certain way that come out when criticizing a fictional portrayal of a woman or when discussing the appropriateness of a piece of art. (A protest video, for example, or a racy poster hung up in a place of work.) This does happen.

Thing is this defense gets pulled out when there's legitimate complaints going around to address. (But oddly, never does this defense get pulled out when straight men are gathered and making "hurr hurr" comments about the subject of the work.) It's pulled out to ignore those complaints, and position the creator/artist as the truly enlightened lover of women, and anyone made uncomfortable by this as a shrill fairy tale villain. We see it again and again, and you know what? It works.

It freaking works, because it puts the critic on the defensive. If the critic has a legitimate complaint, it's usually because they recognize that women are people and that real women are hurt by terms like "Slut" or "whore" and by encouraging a culture that judges based on clothing and appearance even if the work in question is entirely fictional.

Of course, with fiction we can always say "You WROTE every word she said and created every pose!" and continue the same way. But if the work in question features a real woman, a model or an actress or a girl who may or may not have agreed to the video? Oh, it's an effective defense right there. And it may just shut down the conversation.

Except, if the creator in question really had such a thoughtful attitude about what he was putting out, wouldn't he engage the actual complaints in a thoughtful manner? There's differences in taking a picture of yourself in a low cut dress, taking a picture of yourself in a low cut dress that focuses on your cleavage, a woman in a low cut dress with her consent, taking a picture of a woman in a low cut dress with her consent that focuses on her cleavage, taking a picture of a woman in a low cut dress without her consent and taking a picture of a woman in low cut dress without her consent that focuses on her cleavage without even getting INTO the politics of putting "Hey, Dudez! BOOBIES!!!" in glitter across the top (and who may have done this with who's knowledge). An intelligent man who had really considered the implications of his art would be ready to discuss it without directing criticism of his actions (the angle of the photo, the intent of the project itself) towards his model (who could be completely onboard, but that doesn't magically make the work feminist, or of any artistic value).

He could at least address his own actions, if his own actions are so defensible, before he tries to direct all attention towards the morality of his subject or women in general.

There's just something weasely about the whole tactic, and we see it ALL the time, from comics to commercials, to what sort of images are displayed at work, to just calling out a guy for leering at a stranger on the street. ("What's your problem with showing a little boob?" Nothing, my problem is with showing your eyes so far out of their sockets.) The default for some men seems to be to remove yourself from the equation and point all the complaints at the woman, rather than answer for your own behavior.


  1. Yeah, I agree completely.

    Part of what bothers me about this is being disingenuous over the whole thing. Obviously that's not the only, or biggest, sin of overly sexualizing a character or taking "sexy" pictures of real women without their consent. However, I'd have more respect if Mr. Lobdell had defended his choice by talking about how he saw Starfire as a very sexual character, and thought it would be an appropriate thing to focus on that. I still wouldn't agree with what he did, but at least then you could say he's owning up to the portrayal.

    But then, this defense is all about avoiding such responsibility, so I don't expect him to change his tune any time soon, unless the Internet keeps melting on him.

  2. Thing is... I think he has a point (to a point). It really distressed me how much of the internet discussion of Starfire threw around words like 'whore' and 'slut' in describing her character as portrayed in Lobdell's recent #1 *as well as* how she was portrayed prior to that comic. So there were Starfire detractors using those words and using similar slut-shaming language, as well as Starfire supporters.

    What made me feel worst of all was that I found myself reaching for those words when I wrote about my concerns with that comic, and I found it oddly difficult to avoid using them. Which made me think a lot.

    I think Lobdell needs to acknowledge that he made some major misfires with that issue, because it's pretty evident by now that he thought he was writing an empowering character, and that he massively failed to do so. I also think some of that disconnect is caused by the art - without the porn star poses and passive pouting at the reader, would we have reacted as strongly to the comic? If Starfire had been fully clothed when she propositioned Roy, and her face had contained an ounce of character or humour, would the scene have been quite as alarmingly creepy?

    I'm not defending Lobdell, I think that his writing contributed substantially to the overwhelming ickiness of that issue. And I think he needs to accept that more is going on here 'omg the internet hates the boobies'.

    But I do think it's a problem that so much of the protest was about criticising *Starfire* for being a whore, or looking like a slut, rather than directing their disgust directly at the creators.

    (I went with 'sexbot' in the end, which I felt was far less accusatory, and also more descriptive. It wasn't Starfire's flirting or multiple partners that was the problem, it was the fact that her character was entirely composed of being sexually available, and her personality had been wiped clean of any other element)

    I totally agree that male comics creators playing the 'we are more feminist than you' card is deeply annoying, and it's frustrating that they took the wrong message from the outrage. But I also think in this case the internet provided them with a whole pile of steaming, slut-shaming ammunition with which to derail the debate.

  3. All I can say is, without the Starfire characterization, I would've picked up issue 2. I think the most effective way for me to contribute to any protest about this is to simply keep my wallet in my pocket.

    Well, unless I'm buying good stuff.

    -- Jack of Spades

  4. Weasely describes it rather well. If people misinterpret what you have written, then you know...perhaps the problem lies with the WRITER and not the reader. Portraying poor Kory as a mindless blow-up doll doesn't empower her, it's just skeevy. But if you have the temerity to point that out, YOU are the bad guy?

    If he really means to make her strong and powerful and fabulous and all of that, it would be nice if he would DO it.

  5. Wait, wasn't Lobdell the guy who decided Northstar was gay? Yes he was, and he did it largely to explain why Jean-Paul was so angry all the time:

    Lobdell ultimately decided that the superhero was angry at a society that forced him to keep his sexuality a secret. "While I certainly don't think all closeted gay men are angry, I'm speaking specifically about Jean Paul," Lobdell clarified. "He used his anger to keep people away from him, from getting close, from discovering who he was. If you disliked him for being an arrogant prick, then you were not going to be able to get close enough to learn who he really was. If you didn't like him for who he pretended to be, then you wouldn't be able to judge him for who he was."

    What's odd is, Lobdell is doing the opposite now: instead of adding a layer of depth to Northstar to make the character more understandable, he's removing any depth in Starfire to make the character more pliant.

    Really, when you start with a nudist alien sex slave princess out of a Vallejo calendar who got her powers from a bondage accident, and people feel you are turning her into a sex toy, you're probably doing something wrong.

    (Yeah, I'm going there: Starfire was a fantasy blow-up woman from day one. Just a slightly different fantasy, where rather than gettin' it on with all the jocks, she retained enough innocence and vulnerability that what she really wanted was a quiet, thoughtful guy not unlike a comic book writer.)

  6. Thanks for this post. It does a great job of explaining a complicated issue.

    I've been trying to sort out my feelings about the issue, particularly after reading the flight-attendant sequence in issue #2. I wanted to believe that Lobdell was trying to create a "fun" dynamic by giving us an overtly sexual Starfire, and I bought his argument that she was free of "human" morals. After all, I enjoyed the constantly naked, overtly sexual Jason Todd we got in Judd Winick's recent "Batman and Robin" arc. I felt like Lobdell needed some time (since it was just the first issue) to give us a more nuanced view of Starfire that might balance out the overtly sexual part. I wish he would've said that when he was interviewed, but, instead he got defensive. I was more or less willing to forgive him...

    ...but, then we got the flight attendant, and I started to feel a little icky. If he wants us to believe that Starfire's overt sexuality isn't a straight, adolescent-boy, wish-fulfillment exercise, but an intrinsic part of her character, then EVERY woman in the series can't act that way. Again, I'm all for sexuality in comics, but something about it is clearly rubbing everyone the wrong way. As TansyRR said, maybe it's the art. If the flight attendant had just slipped Jason her number and not perched seductively on Roy's empty chair, it might've felt different.

    At any rate, I'm hoping they resolve it, because I love me some Jason Todd and really don't want to have to give up the book because the female characterizations prove too much to bear.